Hearken is a VC accelerator-backed company founded by journalist, Jennifer Brandel, who began her career in the early 2000s, reporting for outlets including WBEZ, NPR, APM, PRI, CBC, Radiotopia, The New York Times and Vice. The basic premise of the service is that it allows journalists and newsrooms to crowdsource consumer feedback on articles at the planning stage, thus gaining an understanding into audience engagement prior to creating content. It puts an interesting spin on the combined data-led, though audience driven approach to service journalism, and as Brandel explains the concept was initially born out of an editorial need to become more relevant.
We began by asking Brandel to introduce us to the concept:
“I’ve been a journalist for a long time, and I basically was running up against this question, which was: ‘how do I know that my stories are relevant and valuable to the public before I do all the work?’ And so the last five years I’ve been working on developing a model where I can know before I report, whether or not these stories are valuable. And it really starts with a different mind-set of who the audience is and how I can relate to them as a reporter. So instead of thinking of them as a consumer, or a piece of data, or a dollar sign in some way, shape or form, it’s about thinking of them as a partner and starting with their information needs rather than going into it with my assumptions as to what they might need.”
So how do you do that?
“Well, you can do it in a number of different ways. We’ve developed, at Hearken, a whole system of making it easy to go into your normal everyday workflow. So, a quick example would be, we have a technology that supports this idea of putting the audience first. And there’s a few different ways the audience can react with the newsroom while they’re in the process of making a story. So at the pitch phase while assignments or where ideas come about and you decide what to report on, the public can ask questions. And so they can use our technology to put on their site and collect questions that the audience might have about topics that they cover, about breaking news stories, about all manner of things.”
“And then at the assignment phase newsrooms can use our tech to collect votes on which stories the public would like the newsroom to do. Through to the reporting phase where the newsroom can use this tool we just release called Open notebook, showing their work of how they’re getting the information for the story and allowing the public to follow along and also contribute. So there’s a few different points before publication where the audience can engage and shape the story that results.”
If we’re talking about data-driven content though, don’t trending topics and social timelines give us a pretty good indication these days of what people want to read about and share? i.e. if people are talking about Trump, isn’t the sensible journalistic thing to do to follow that topic and offer more content in that area?
“So, it’s hard to explain, but the way I think about it is to use a lot of food metaphors, because food is very easy and universal! So if you think about it, what the newsroom is doing, is they’re putting out two options. Do you want the Donald Trump story? Or do you want the unsexy story about an infrastructure problem? And when you put those two things next to each other, you can assume from the metrics if everybody clicks on the Donald Trump story that they must want Donald Trump. Well you’re only offering them two options! You’re not actually offering them stuff that might even be more relevant to them. You don’t even know what you’re missing, because you’ve just put out limited options.”
“With our model it’s about creating those individual insights, things that aren’t trending, things that are universal and relevant to people but aren’t showing up on all of the leaderboards and things, but that end up becoming very popular stories, so it’s kind of before the trending happens.”
Do you think that, after many years of focussing on new technologies and revenues streams, the industry is getting back to basics a bit in terms of putting content – and more importantly user driven content – back at the heart of the product?
“I think so. The problem that we still face is the revenue models of advertisement and click-based monetisation. When your whole model is based on getting the most number of clicks, you’re going to do a lot of horrible things that actually undermine the quality of your journalism in order to try and make money. So I think until people try to move away from the advertising model in the way that it has been which is just about pure volume, we’re going to be faced with this problem of quantity over quality.”
And what about monetising this type of approach. Would micropayments for example work well in helping fund this type of consumer-driven journalism?
“Yeah, I mean I think micropayment strategy is one way to go about it. I think the most compelling thing to do is to actually look at journalism as a service and think about how you can be the most valuable and service orientated that you can. And then when you ask people for money, whether that’s with micropayments or asking them to subscribe to the newsletter, whatever it is, you will have a value proposition to them to not just say hey we put out a lot of reporting that you might like. Instead they say we serve you, we listen to you, we actually create the things that you need, now give us money. That is a much more compelling argument than just we make things, and you might click on them every so often!”
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